Reviewing St. Augustine’s “On Christian Teaching”, Book IV

The first three books of St. Augustine’s On Christian Teaching (Latin title: De doctrina christiana) are on the interpretation of the Scriptures, or hermeneutics. (See my previous entries on Book I, Book II, and Book III) The last book is more on presenting what the Scriptures are about. If one says that first three books is about wisdom, the fourth is about “eloquence,” as St. Augustine called it. It is the rhetoric, or literary tools in nowadays terms. The educated in his times were mostly exposed to this subject. Rhetoric can be both good and bad.

St. Augustine believed rhetoric should be learnt separately, and it is not necessary for every Christians to learn about it. He would rather leave it to people who would use this for the good of the church. He said that the deployment of evidence and rational arguments were needed for the clarification of disputed issues, but to move people, there is a higher demand on the speakers’ or writers’ eloquence. He wrote, “… wisdom without eloquence is of little value to the society… eloquence without wisdom is… a great nuisance, and never beneficial.”[1] (Current American voters may find this statement resonating.) He wrote that wisdom was not merely memorized knowledge of the Scriptures, but required “real understanding and careful investigation.”[2]

Speaking of the authors of the canon, St. Augustine thought that the text demonstrated the authors’ both wisdom and eloquence because of their divinely inspired nature. He quoted Apostle Paul, prophets, Jerome and others as examples.

The teachers of the Scriptures should always make their sermons or works “intelligible”[3] to ordinary audience. This is part of the eloquence. And he also wrote,

“… the speaker who is endeavouring to give conviction to something that is good should despise none of these three aims – of instructing, delighting, and moving his hearers – and should make it his prayerful aim to be listened to with understanding, with pleasure, and with obedience…”[4]

He then moved on to three styles of speaking, namely the restrained style, the moderate style, and the grand style. He summarized it: “… in the restrained style, if it is being taught; in the moderate style, if it is being praised; and in the grand style, if antagonistic minds are being driven to change their attitude.”[5] And he stressed the importance of the use of a “variety”[6] of these styles. Reiterating that the speakers have to be both wise and eloquent, he wrote about the art of speaking both wisely and eloquently as “a matter of using adequate words in the restrained style, striking words in the mixed style, and powerful words in the grand style…”[7]

Interestingly, he quoted Queen Esther speaking both wisely and adequately when pleading for her people in front of the king of Persia.

I think this old work is still speaking in nowadays churches and societies.

[1] Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. E. P. H. Green, Oxford World’s Classics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 104.

[2] Ibid., 104.

[3] Ibid., 116.

[4] Ibid., 123.

[5] Ibid., 125-126.

[6] Ibid., 137.

[7] Ibid., 144.

  • Saint Augustine. On Christian Teaching. Translated by R. P. H. Green. Oxford World’s Classics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 1997. [Amazon]
  • Feature image: Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areopagus_sermon.
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